As the speedometer crept over 110 kms, I realized that I could stay in the truck lane and content myself with driving blind behind a big box, or I could speed up. The other cars were simply whizzing by and there did not seem to be any speed limit.  Go, little Panda, go!

The fastest cars in the world come out of Italy, of course.  They were built by and for Italians, for people who seem to believe that they have to keep up with Mario Andretti or they’ll be letting the home team down.  It would not be a leisurely drive up to the mountains, but it would be quick.

Aside from an inadvertent detour at the end of the motorway which almost took us into France, all went well. The mountain road from Aymavilles to Cogne required all my attention. Fortunately, there was no ice, little traffic, and plenty of places to pull over and let the locals pass.

Our albergo was in the village of Lillaz. There was a large parking area outside the village, but I decided to be bold and follow the signs to the hotel. It was like driving through a toy town. Enormous amounts of snow clung to the rooftops. The streets were barely big enough for a car. The last turn had my wife holding her breath. And then, there we were.

Later, we discovered the reason the hotel had been booked solid until our lucky, last-minute cancellation.  An annual  cross-country race was scheduled to start the next morning.  Over 750 competitors would be out on the trail.  The fastest would be done in two hours, of course, but the slowest….? Our host had neglected to mention the race when he was on the phone with our travel agent, but he assured us we could be out skiing by 10:30.

Lillaz is famous for its cascate (frozen waterfall), which is a short walk from the village.  We made our way out there to get some exercise before dinner.  We were starting to lose the light, but there was a small group of climbers at the base– mostly Brits.

We were looking at the first of four “pitches.”  If I understood correctly, this particular fall was actually 1500 meters high. The whole area is a mecca for ice climbers.  It is an excruciatingly slow and scary sport to watch from the snow below.  Occasionally, chunks of ice would get dislodged by an ice pick, come plummeting down, hard and dangerous as rocks.

The next morning we got in a little bit of skiing before we were hustled off the tracks by locals, who must have thought we were mad.  They were out in force to watch the three leaders fly by.  Most of the participants were Italian, but the event had attracted some international skiers during the last two years.  Both top spots (male and female) were taken by Japanese skiers.  The winner finished the 45 km run in 2 hours, one minute, just a couple minutes ahead of his compatriot.

That afternoon we did have the place to ourselves.  The weather was perfect and the track was still fine.  We hadn’t done this in awhile, and it felt good.  From our window, we could see Mont Blanc to the west. Lillaz is at the end of a valley that runs east-west. A second valley runs north-south, heading from the village of Cogne towards the mountain of Gran Paradiso.The village at its head is called Valnontey.

We headed up there by car on the Monday, stopping for a leisurely lunch in Cogne. It is a spectacular valley  If the word awesome hadn’t been stamped into meaningless phonemes over the last decade by almost everyone, it would be the exact word to use to describe the peaks around us. The Alps are awesome.

But as we headed out a helicopter flew overhead, its blades making an ominous sound in the quiet afternoon.  The temperature had climbed quickly during the day and the amount of snow on the steep rock faces was considerable. Something had triggered an avalanche.  It knocked two climbers off the face of Valmiana, ice climb number 8 of 53 in Valnontey. A 33 year-old Frenchman was dead; his Irish partner survived the fall.

It would be ghoulish to say that we enjoyed our afternoon, but we were ignorant of the tragedy until our ski was done.  Tomorrow I head home to Melbourne, back to the land where whole towns have been wiped out by flames. I will miss winter. I’ll miss the Italians, my teachers and fellow students at Italiano Porticando.  I’ll miss the city, of course, and the spectacular Alps.